Educational Advocacy in the Age of COVID-19: Expert Q&A

In August 2020, Texas CASA had a conversation with Texas Children’s Commission Executive Director Jamie Bernstein and Staff Attorney Renée Castillo-De La Cruz about the new school year—and how CASA volunteers can best advocate for children’s education, whether online or in the classroom.

Bernstein and Castillo-De La Cruz are experts on the intersection of the foster care and education systems. They currently staff the Children’s Commission Foster Care & Education Committee, a cross-systems collaboration that works to improve educational outcomes for children. Bernstein has also worked closely with Texas CASA on education and juvenile justice issues—including playing a major role in the development our Educational Advocacy Guidebook and guesting on our CASA on the Go podcast and Conversations with CASA series.

Let’s start with an overview of the latest decisions about online and in-person schooling. What does going back to school look like right now? 

Renée Castillo-De La Cruz: It’s still a very fluid situation. The Texas Education Agency (TEA) can put out guidance, but ultimately every Local Education Agency (LEA) or school district is going to make their own independent decision.

One school district, for example, was supposed to start online instruction in mid-August, with in-person instruction, for those who opted to do so, starting on Sept. 8. That school district is now pushing back the start of in-person instruction to Sept. 28 because their county judge issued an order delaying in-person schooling until the 20th of September. Decisions regarding the start of in-person schooling may change from day to day based on the information that is available to school districts in an effort to ensure the health and safety of students, faculty and staff returning to campus.

Of course, parents will ultimately decide whether their child will return for in-person instruction or receive virtual instruction. For children in foster care, that decision will be made by the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). Parents must weigh the pros and cons of the each of the learning options available for their child and make a decision based on what they determine is best. Some considerations may include what medium for learning best serves the child’s educational needs, access to technology, ability to access tutoring, ability for a parent or other caregiver to remain at home with the child, the child’s need for normalcy and the child’s health.

Jamie Bernstein: It’s hard to generalize, but I do think that most schools are offering both in-person and virtual, and some have a process in place to prioritize certain student populations, like students with disabilities who receive special education services and students whose parents might be immunocompromised. They’re making different considerations on how they transition back to school in person.

The one thing that the state did say is that there has to be some mechanism in place to track attendance. There are also some distinctions being drawn based on elementary, middle and high school and how they receive their education—a lot of thinking about how credit is received, and how much elementary school students can absorb virtually. That’s part of the conversation, too.

For children in foster care, specifically, how is it decided whether they attend school in-person or online?

RC: DFPS is still going to be that ultimate decision-maker as conservator for the child. The caregiver also has input into whether a child in foster care is going to do online or in-person learning. This decision should be made for each individual child based on their needs and may also include the input of the child’s attorney ad litem, guardian ad litem or CASA volunteer, and the child’s parents. For children receiving special education and other services, the child’s advocate should consider whether the child is able to receive all of the services and accommodations provided for in the child’s Individualized Education Plan (IEP) under each of the learning options.

What would you want CASA volunteers to know and consider as they’re advocating for kids’ education right now?

RC: Definitely now, more than ever, communication and collaboration are important. CASA volunteers need to be able to speak to the child, if the child is verbal, and determine what the child’s educational needs and goals are.

Sometimes, the CASA volunteer may be appointed as the “surrogate parent,” or special education decision-maker, for the child, which means the CASA volunteer would be a part of the child’s Admission, Review, and Dismissal (ARD) Committee and would have an active role in creating the child’s IEP. The CASA volunteer should strive to understand what the child’s educational needs are and whether the child’s IEP can be effectively implemented if the child stays at home versus going to school—and what that looks like and how it affects the placement, if at all.

TEA and DFPS’s websites have pages dedicated to providing resources to parents and caregivers to help meet their child’s educational and emotional needs during this time. CASA volunteers can help point out those resources to the placement and to the parents so that they better understand how to meet their child’s needs.

JB: I just want to say that I think that the duty hasn’t changed! It’s still what’s in statute: to inquire about whether the child’s educational needs and goals are being met. That is very individualized, and dependent on that child’s abilities, interests and needs. Volunteers should ask the questions and keep contact with the child, even if it’s virtual contact, to make sure that they’re progressing in school and they have what they need to thrive.

For example, do they have access to technology? Are they accessing nutrition through the school? Are they interacting with peers? Do they understand their coursework? Do they need tutoring? The environment may be very different, but the duties and questions are the same.

RC: Also, if it is determined that online learning is best for the child, the child should be able to remain in their school of origin and have a sense of normalcy by attending class virtually with their friends and teachers. The silver lining here is that if the child’s placement changes to a location that normally would require a school transfer due to distance, and online instruction is available through their school of origin, the child shouldn’t have to transfer to a different school.

On the topic of normalcy: Besides making sure children can stay in their school of origin, is there anything else CASA volunteers can do to help make their lives feel a little bit more normal?

RC: Children, especially for their psychological well-being, need to have access to their friends. Even if it’s just talking to them on the phone, Facebook, or through FaceTime.

Participation in extracurricular activities is going to have to be a part of the discussion. Does the child want to participate in sports, clubs or other social activities? Is it in the best interest of the child to participate? Can they, with the proper social distancing precautions in place, do certain activities or participate in certain after-school programs? Those are things that, if done safely, should be considered.

JB: I agree. I think none of us really know what the school year is going to look like, but if there’s any opportunity for them to explore their interests and engage with their peers virtually, or in a safe, socially distanced way, this is the time for creativity!

For example, if the child loves chess, is there a chess club? Can we monitor them playing online chess and make sure it’s a safe platform? Is there a way for them to play chess with their friends on the iPad? Think about ways that they can have the things that spark their interest, so that they feel engaged. Even though the pandemic has disrupted many aspects of our lives, providing normalcy is still critical for children and youth in foster care.

Switching gears from kids to caregivers, what can we do to support parents, foster parents and kinship caregivers who are helping children with online learning?

JB: It’s tough. As someone who monitored virtual learning in the spring, it’s hard! If you don’t have an education background, or even if you do, it’s difficult to balance the schoolwork and other obligations.

I think it’s just communication, making sure that they have what they need. They may need some help navigating the information from the district. It’s a lot of coordination with many different people at the school campus. Volunteers can help by making sure caregivers understand what the education system is requiring; that they understand how they’re counting attendance, so the child isn’t marked absent.

Some caregivers might need some additional assistance, including respite support. This is a whole new function of being a caregiver that they have not had to do before, so making sure that they can take care of themselves so that they can take care of the kids will be important. And that’s important for kinship caregivers, too.

RC: As the use of video conferencing applications has become the norm, child advocates should consider advocating for increased virtual access for parents so they may have an opportunity to take a more active role in their child’s learning while they are placed out of their home. Parents should know what’s going on with their child’s education and be encouraged to help with the homework and school lessons. Because reunification is the primary goal in most cases, efforts should be made to include the parents in teacher conferences and education planning to ensure that the parent is up to date with their child’s educational needs upon their return home.

What else is important for CASA volunteers to know?

RC: Things are always changing, and we don’t have a crystal ball. So, just keep doing the job that they’re doing, advocating for kids! There’s a lot of uncharted territory that we’re navigating through, so I think it’s all a learning experience.

The more creative you can be with trying to get children to have as normal a life as they can with school, the better. It really is about communication. It’s about putting our heads together and working with DFPS, the local school district, and the parents and extended family. Ask questions! Someone within the family may know something about the child that the child is not able to express based on their age or even on their disability. Parents and family members know the child best, so make sure you’re not just engaging the placement in these discussions.

So, to summarize: Back-to-school season looks different for everyone right now. While everything is uncertain, something that has stayed certain is the role of the CASA volunteer and how they advocate for children’s education. Nothing about that has changed, it’s just that it needs to look different and be a little more diligent this year. Is that right?

RC: Pretty much. That’s it in a nutshell! The role of the CASA volunteer has not changed. It’s just that they may need to approach issues in a more creative way and a little bit more outside-the-box.

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